A Ph.D. candidate crossed Florida colleges off his job-search list after the University of Florida blocked professors from testifying against a state voting law.
In North Carolina, prominent professors and administrators of color on the Chapel Hill campus left to take jobs elsewhere, citing the university’s racial and political climate. That was before the brouhaha over whether the state-appointed Board of Trustees would award tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the
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A Ph.D. candidate crossed Florida colleges off his job-search list after the University of Florida blocked professors from testifying against a state voting law.
In North Carolina, prominent professors and administrators of color on the Chapel Hill campus left to take jobs elsewhere, citing the university’s racial and political climate. The departures came amid a brouhaha over whether a largely state-appointed Board of Trustees would award tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times reporter and creator of the controversial “1619 Project.”
Colleges have been pulled into the red-hot center of America’s raging culture wars. And as higher education is attacked as an institution, employees up and down the ladder find their professional lives more difficult. Faculty members at state institutions are feeling under siege, worried about the intrusion of elected officials and politically appointed governing boards into what they can teach, research, and write. Student-life and diversity offices can suddenly find their programming the subject of op-eds and legislative debate. Presidents, especially at public colleges, are in the hot seat. Opposition by many Republican governors and lawmakers to mask and vaccination mandates have exacerbated the sense that colleges are beleaguered.
“Covid has been the nasty olive in this cocktail,” says Cecilia M. Orphan, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Denver.
The caustic political climate risks reshaping and disrupting the career paths of young and seasoned academics alike. Some will think twice about applying for jobs at certain institutions, while others will decamp for greener, less-partisan pastures. Some could leave higher education altogether.
It’s no Great Resignation, yet. And the unforgiving academic-job market in many disciplines, along with personal and family obligations, could limit mobility for many. But the political pressure has been building for years, leading to potential recruitment and retention challenges.
Jesse Stommel quit a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin at Madison after Gov. Scott Walker succeeded, in 2015, in weakening tenure protections, in what many see as a harbinger of today’s widespread battles over tenure and academic freedom. “Leaving was incredibly hard,” he says, “but at the end of the day, it was the smartest choice for me professionally, intellectually, and personally.”
Activist governors or meddling boards could also lead candidates for college presidencies to steer clear. In South Carolina, for example, a recent presidential search was bumpy, with a lead candidate dropping out, and observers wonder if the state’s reputation as a place where elected leaders play politics with higher education could be partly to blame.
There is a partisan geography to higher ed’s current clashes. While blue-state colleges aren’t immune to outside interference, recent high-profile controversies over such issues as mask mandates, critical race theory, and tenure have occurred in states where Republicans control the governor’s office, the state legislature, or both. That Republican officials would cast higher education as a foil is no surprise — GOP voters increasingly view colleges, and college professors, with suspicion and even hostility. Democrats and independents, by contrast, have more-positive views of academe. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic candidate for Senate delivering a keynote address titled “The Professors Are the Enemy” to a gathering of progressives, as J.D. Vance, a Republican running in Ohio, did at the National Conservatism Conference in November.
Politics could color the reputation of public colleges — and in red states, some fear it’s the hue of a stop light, signaling stay away.
The implications are troubling. Public flagships in red states could find themselves at a disadvantage compared with their peers in blue states or at private research universities. They could struggle to maintain their intellectual prestige. “It feels like we could have two separate systems,” says Michael S. Harris, a professor of higher education and chair of educational policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University, “red and blue.”
But Republicans historically supported higher education, especially at the federal level, where they saw spending on education and science as an investment in economic advancement and national security.
Partisan views of college, however, have diverged sharply in the past decade. A college degree itself has become a political litmus test: Graduates are more likely to vote Democratic, while those without a degree identify with the GOP.
As students have become more demographically diverse, and colleges have begun to confront and rectify a history of racism in their enrollment, curriculum, and programming, such changes are viewed uncomfortably by some white voters who see, and often begrudge, higher education as a gatekeeper to the middle class. “White voters feel threatened by the changes higher education has made,” says Barrett Taylor, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas who will publish a book, Wrecked: Deinstitutionalization and Partial Defenses in State Higher Education Policy, on the subject this year. “It put them on a collision course.”
Voters and public officials can be skeptical or resentful of the authority given to academic expertise and credentials, especially when it contradicts or challenges their worldview. The very work of a publicly engaged researcher — testifying as an expert witness, weighing in on policy debates — can be viewed with hostility. That’s played out most prominently in the case of the Florida voting-rights researchers, who were barred from testifying against a law backed by the state’s Republican leadership. (University administrators backed down, but the professors are suing.)
Republicans are well positioned to influence public colleges — they control more than 60 percent of all legislative chambers across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 23 states they have “trifectas,” controlling both houses of the state legislature as well as the governor’s office; by contrast, Democrats have monopolies of power in 14 states.
Electoral victories handed Republicans an outsize say in the composition of public-college governing boards, many of which are appointed through a political process. A 2020 Chronicle investigation found that sitting public-college trustees had donated almost $20 million to state political campaigns and partisan causes.
That may influence where their allegiances lie, says Felecia Commodore, an associate professor of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University. Board members may view their jobs as advancing the agenda of a party or a politician, seeing themselves as watchdogs or cultural warriors, rather than first and foremost as fiduciaries of the college. “They can get into the weeds where they’re not supposed to be,” she says. “Their loyalty is not to the institution.”
For many faculty members, tenure protections, academic freedom, and control of the curriculum are bright lines, and intrusions can feel unsettling, alarming, even existential. “These things go to the heart of what higher education is and who it is for,” Taylor says.
Add in Covid-19, which has itself become politicized. In states where college leaders say they can’t mandate masks or vaccination, the very act of being on campus can feel risky to employees.
It has some rethinking their academic 9 to 5.
But the controversy in Florida changed things for Andrew, who asked to be identified only by his middle name because he is on the job market.
He had already submitted an application to a public college in Florida, and he considered withdrawing it. He chose not to, but he decided not to apply to other positions that came open there. He studies migration policy, which can be controversial in its own right, and ideas like critical race theory inform his work. “Are there particular states or universities where my perspective wouldn’t be welcome?” he wonders.
The people running search committees are also watching. While department chairs at the University of Florida contacted by The Chronicle in the wake of the voting-rights case said job candidates had not withdrawn from consideration, some worried about the long term.
A chair in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences says his biggest concern is the junior faculty members in his department who will come up for tenure in the next few years. Many are talented young scholars with strong reputations who could “write their ticket to go anywhere,” says the chair, asking not to be named because of the political environment at the university. “I want to keep them because I want our department to be great.”
Yet he also cares about them as colleagues, and he wonders if remaining in Florida will be best for their careers. He wrestles with whether it would be fair of him to try to persuade them to stay. “We understand the problems here are structural,” the chair says. “We’ve only averted this crisis, but there’s going to be another crisis.”
While he says his department has not experienced any political interference, faculty members who specialize in areas like political science, public policy, racial and ethnic studies, and even public health could find their work more scrutinized by elected officials.
Orphan, the University of Denver professor, notes it is not just professors who may feel under the microscope. Staff members in fields such as multicultural or student affairs can also face public critique, and they don’t have the protections of tenure.
Enrollment in graduate programs in the study of higher education, often a route for staffers in those areas to climb the administrative ranks, are down, and Orphan speculates that the pressure cooker of politics could be partly to blame. “I know of people who are thinking about leaving higher education,” she says. “They’re burnt out.”
As the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy raged last spring, several prominent professors and administrators of color decided that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was not for them. Lisa Jones, a chemistry professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, withdrew from consideration for a faculty position at Chapel Hill in protest. Several current faculty members headed for the doors. One of them, Kia L. Caldwell, a professor of African, African American, and diaspora studies, suggested even more could leave. “This is indeed a crisis,” she tweeted.
But is it a crisis in the eyes of red-state lawmakers? Maybe not, says David A. Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, who has studied the conservative movement’s impact on colleges. Some elected officials and voters may not worry if their state university declines in status. “If you don’t care so much about building a world-class university,” Hopkins says, “it’s not such a big deal that the big-shot professors go elsewhere.”
“The decision that I’m going to pick up my ball and go play in another game is neither easy nor simple,” says Sally Mason, a consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ search group and former president of the University of Iowa.
For one, academe is still a tough job market. Even for faculty members seeking to leave, there’s no guarantee of an opening in their discipline or specialty. “There are more faculty and Ph.D.s in the labor market than there are jobs,” says Demetri L. Morgan, an assistant professor and chair of the higher-education program at Loyola University Chicago.
And where’s a safe haven? Given Republicans’ partisan edge at the state level, it can seem as if fires are flaring everywhere, all the time, says Brendan Cantwell, an associate professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University. “At a certain point, when it’s happening in a lot of states all at once, you can’t really avoid it.”
Even in states run by Democrats, public colleges aren’t necessarily free from political interference, or the threat of it. Cantwell points to his own state, which has a Democratic governor but a Republican-controlled Legislature. If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were to lose her bid for re-election this year, public colleges could lose a bulwark against Republican encroachment.
Deep-blue Hawaii has examined limits on tenure, notes Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, while conservative Iowa has staved off several attempts to get rid of it. Blue-state governors can play politics, too. Andrew M. Cuomo, the former New York governor, was famous for handing out seats on university governing boards, and even the chancellorship of the state-university system, to loyalists.
Some more-liberal states might be less attractive for other reasons. Largely Democratic New England, for instance, has historically underfunded its public colleges, which often play second fiddle to the many elite private institutions across the region.
Indeed, some red states have opened their pocketbooks to higher education in recent years. A potential dilemma for professors: balancing fears of political meddling with benefits of being at a better-resourced institution. Morgan, a University of Florida alumnus, says the institution secured state support to help it meet its goal of becoming a top-five public university. “They were funding us at the same time they were muzzling us,” he says.
In fact, that increased funding may give lawmakers, and taxpayers, the sense that they are entitled to have more of a say in how colleges operate.
Beginning more than a decade ago, Scott Walker, a governor with presidential ambitions, targeted the state’s vaunted public-university system. With the cooperation of a conservative Legislature, he stripped faculty members and other public employees of their collective-bargaining rights, slashed budgets, and sought to overhaul university governance. He even considered abandoning the “Wisconsin Idea,” higher ed’s public-service mission, which is ensconced in state law — although he retreated after public blowback.
Sara Goldrick-Rab says she felt “constantly policed” as a professor on the Madison campus. Now a professor of sociology and medicine at Pennsylvania’s Temple University, Goldrick-Rab says she frequently worried that students were taping her, trying to catch “their liberal professor” in a gotcha. Lawmakers criticized her research, on college affordability and equity, in the newspaper and on the statehouse floor.
For Goldrick-Rab, the breaking point was the effort to remove protections for tenure and shared governance from state law.
The choice to leave Wisconsin wasn’t easy. Not only was she uprooting her family (Goldrick-Rab has two children); she was also disrupting the lives of the two dozen staff members of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a center she started to focus on low-income students.
But when she decided to go, she had options. Goldrick-Rab is a prolific fund raiser, and at Temple, as at Wisconsin, her work has attracted generous donor support. “Temple wouldn’t be that nice to me if I didn’t raise money,” she says.
Jesse Stommel’s position was very different from Goldrick-Rab’s. He had been at Wisconsin for less than three years, and he didn’t have big grants. But being at the start of his career gave him a measure of freedom. “I had the ability to privilege job over family,” he says.
Just four months after the tenure bill’s passage, Stommel landed a non-tenured job as executive director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia. (He is now a faculty member in the writing program at the University of Denver.)
Notably, neither Stommel nor Goldrick-Rab jumped from public to private. (Running a center devoted to equity in higher education at a private college would seem incompatible, she says.) And both Pennsylvania and Virginia are purplish political battlegrounds.
To Goldrick-Rab, the issue isn’t simply red or blue but how public-college leaders respond to partisan pressure: Do they shield faculty members from political interference and fight to protect critical rights such as tenure and academic freedom?
In Wisconsin, Goldrick-Rab felt that wasn’t the case. At Temple, she says, administrators have faculty members’ backs. She cites a 2018 controversy over statements by Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of media studies, about Israel. Temple’s president and Board of Trustees condemned Hill’s comments but defended his free-speech rights and resisted calls to fire him.
There hasn’t been “a single moment, not one second” since she came to Temple, when she worried about government interference in her work, Goldrick-Rab says. “I thought about it all the time in Wisconsin.”
While some left Wisconsin, others stayed, such as Dhavan V. Shah, a professor of communications. To keep him, the Madison flagship increased his salary by more than $30,000 and gave him $200,000 in research support, according to public documents obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Anticipating that other universities would take advantage of the turmoil to lure away star professors like Shah, Madison spent nearly $16 million to counter outside offers in the 2015-16 academic year. Three-quarters of the 144 professors who were being recruited decided to stay in Wisconsin.
Of course, it’s hard to know how many professors would have been on the job market even without the tenure changes. For his part, Shah remains concerned about efforts to weaken academic freedom, but he says that politicians’ attacks on higher ed can backfire. In the years since the tenure debate, he and a group of Madison colleagues have shifted their work on civic culture and engagement to make Wisconsin their laboratory. “The very thing they’re doing isn’t silencing us but amplifying us,” Shah says. “Our focus hasn’t weakened but sharpened.”
But Shah is in a privileged position as a professor with a large outside research portfolio, and says he might feel different were it earlier in his career. Without the protections of tenure, younger faculty members could hesitate to speak out or to conduct research in areas that could spark scrutiny or criticism. “I don’t know what this means for the next generation of scholars where the university has become more ideological terrain,” Shah says.
Other faculty members on the Madison campus say the anxieties of the Walker era have subsided. For one, the political landscape has shifted: Although the Legislature remains in Republican hands, the governor is now a Democrat. Professors also credit university leaders for increasing salaries, providing funds for research, and establishing a post-tenure review process acceptable to many faculty members. One professor involved in academic searches says there is no shortage of strong candidates applying to work at the university.
The Wisconsin example suggests that public universities under sustained political fire won’t necessarily suffer an exodus of academic talent, but that they could pay steeply to hold on to top researchers.
Rebecca M. Blank, the Madison chancellor, agrees that there are costs. The flagship campus made faculty retention a top priority, and since 2015 has kept 70 percent of those with outside offers, she said in a written statement. Over the same period, the university has increased its total faculty positions by 100, including hiring 243 new professors.
In terms of reputation, Madison, which ranks eighth among all public and private universities in overall research spending, according to the National Science Foundation, is more than holding its own.
When political controversy strikes, her university is less a cautionary tale, Blank argued, than a “road map others can follow when they encounter similar challenges.”
Her old job will open up again this year, when Blank leaves for Northwestern University. The University of Florida’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, has also announced his resignation. Experts will be watching leadership vacancies like those as a barometer for people’s willingness to take the helm of public universities in tough times.
Another search that has been in the spotlight is at the University of South Carolina. The university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, found that Gov. Henry D. McMaster had exerted “undue influence” over the hiring of a former president, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., who stepped down in May after plagiarism allegations. The search for Caslen’s replacement was turbulent, with a donor resigning from the search committee in protest and the university’s apparent first choice withdrawing from consideration. The university announced last month that it had selected Michael Amiridis, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former South Carolina provost.
But Mason, the former Iowa president, says she sees little evidence that political tensions are limiting the applicant pool for open college presidencies, even at red-state flagships. Presidential aspirants know that navigating political currents comes with the job, she says.
Likewise, Roderick J. McDavis, managing principal of AGB Search, says applicants have been equally strong at public and private colleges and in red and blue states. Half of the candidates he has recently placed are women or people of color.
What has changed, McDavis says, is the average tenure of college presidents. He spent 13 years as president of Ohio University; now the typical college leader is on the job for half that time. “I do think politics is part of that, absolutely,” McDavis says, although he also credits the demands of fund raising and pressures of crisis management, especially during the pandemic, with declining longevity. “If you’re burning the candle at both ends 365 days a year, you cannot sustain that,” he says.
One possibility is that political divides could affect not those throwing their hat in the ring today but the next generation of presidential aspirants. People like Demetri Morgan, the Loyola Chicago professor.
Morgan, 33, won’t find out for a couple of months if he has earned tenure. Still, he’s been contemplating a leadership role in higher ed since graduate school.
Today, though, Morgan is less certain about his path forward. His ambivalence is informed by the very things he studies: college governance, campus climate, equity and inclusion. It’s a front-row seat to the higher-ed culture wars.
As a Black man, Morgan knows he doesn’t fit the traditional model of a college leader. And he worries that some areas of his research focus, such as critical race theory, could scare away potential employers. “I think of how — and I can pretty confidently say this — my work will be misread,” he says.
Some scholars might be tempted to abandon those areas of study. Morgan has not. Nor has he shut the door on his aspirations. If self-selection brought on by the political climate narrows the leadership pool, it could be bad for higher education, he says.
Morgan believes in the role of higher education in democracy and community, yet knows that the very types of institutions he’s drawn to can be the thorniest to navigate. “I’m still one of those suckers,” he says, “who believes in the public good of higher ed.”